Minister's Christmas Message
As we draw inexorably closer to Christmas Day 2021, we should take the time to pause and reflect on what a year this has been, remembering to always give thanks to the God who kept us safe through it all.
At this time last year, many of us were feeling positive about 2021. Having been through our first wave of COVID lockdowns, we thought that we were over the worst as restrictions eased and things opened up again. But as we relaxed, COVID returned in a variant form.
Life can sometimes be confusing, can’t it?
However, through it all, there is one constant and that is the love of our God, manifested in the life and death of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who came to live amongst us over 2,000 years ago and who died so that our sins may be forgiven.
Remember that God never abandons us, even when we feel at our lowest ebbs – he’s always ready to talk to us and reassure us that he had it all under control. It may not always seem that way to us at the time, but our faith can be the one thing that will pull us through and bring us out the other side in one piece.
Lynne & I pray that you will be able to enjoy this Christmas season and, although it may not be the way you usually celebrate it, that you will find God’s peace and love pervading all that you do and experience.
Stay calm, live in the moment, and look to see what you can do to build up the Kingdom of God here in Lane Cove and wherever you may travel these holidays.
We look forward to seeing people at church on Christmas Day if they feel comfortable in getting out.
We will be taking a short break after that service, but we look forward to recommencing our services of worship on Sunday 9th January 2022 at 9:30am.
Hope to see you all, ready and raring to go, in 2022 and pray that the health authorities and governments make wise decisions that will help to keep us safe from the virus.
Christmas blessing on you and your families
Rick & Lynne
Reflection: "Are We There Yet?"
Advent is a time of waiting - waiting for our Lord to come.
Let me ask: “Who’s ever been on a long car trip with, or as, young children?”
We all know that the most common question is: “Are we there yet?”
Young children aren’t very good at waiting, are they?
They easily lose the excitement of the destination, with the boredom of the trip.
The Israelites weren’t very good at waiting, either.
As they waited for their messiah, their resolve and love for God wavered, sometimes disappearing altogether.
They strayed from the ways of God despite the many messengers sent to remind them of the covenants, or agreements, made with their forefathers.
The rules of these were simple: the people keep their end of the bargain and God would look after them.
Sounds easy – but God made humans with free choice, and we often make choices that aren’t pleasing to God.
Journeys do involve a fair bit of waiting, but it can also be a fun time.
During Advent, we’re preparing ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus in that stable in Bethlehem, so long ago.
Getting into a place like Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, has been a difficult process over the last few decades.
It’s in the Palestinian controlled West Bank and people who visit from nearby Jerusalem, in Israel, have to get off their bus and walk a block or so, under the gaze of heavily armed soldiers, before boarding a bus on the Palestinian side.
Of course, passports are scrutinised, and people are questioned regarding the reason for wanting to visit Bethlehem.
If getting to Bethlehem physically seems challenging, it’s nothing compared to getting to Bethlehem spiritually.
At least that’s what John the Baptist would have us understand, because at Advent there is no getting to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, without first passing through the check point manned by John the Baptist.
And John is certainly not merrily waving everyone in.
On the contrary, as the Gospel of Luke tells it, John is taking names and checking passports.
His first inhospitable greeting to the gathered throngs who have come for him to baptise them in the Jordan is, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"
He seems to be saying, "Do you really think that coming to the river for a quick baptism will save you from God's judgment? You'd better think again."
Then after this unnerving opening, John launches into a sermon where he stresses the people's need for absolute, no holds barred, repentance because judgment is on its way and anything short of total repentance is not enough.
So, what counts as total repentance?
In response to his preaching, John must undoubtedly have seen many demonstrations of half-hearted repentance - the kind we’re also capable of.
Maybe we, like the people in John's day, tell ourselves that our half-hearted repentance for wrong-doing is adequate, maybe even ok - if we simply feel a little badly about what we’ve done, or left undone, then that’ll do.
But John is saying that simple sentimentality is insufficient and it's not a mark of full repentance.
Maybe we think that our church identity gives us extra credit points and ought to protect us from God's wrath.
But John says otherwise - that trying to depend on one's heritage doesn't demonstrate full repentance.
What matters most, John says, is how your rubber hits the road - what you do, and how you live.
God doesn’t need people who are just church members, but ones who are believers - not talkers, but doers.
And when John's little riverside congregation hears this alarming word, they begin to ask him for more clarification.
Some in the crowd ask, "What then should we do?" and John responds in effect, by saying: "Share with one another. If you have two coats give one to someone who has none. If you have more food than you need give some away to someone who is hungry."
In other words, demonstrating repentance in one's life will involve generosity. You must be generous, says John.
The tax collectors in the crowd were also not clear and they shouted, "Teacher, what should we do?"
Tax collectors in John's day paid the Roman overlords for the privilege of collecting tolls and tariffs and customs fees.
They extorted as much money as possible from the populace to recoup their initial outlay, making a profit - and John says to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed."
In other words, a demonstration of repentance will be absolute honesty and dependability, John says.
The questions and answers were beginning to make the soldiers in the crowd a little worried, because they asked, "And what should we do?"
These soldiers had a right to be nervous, as their compensation for working under the Romans was not lavish.
Their pay was small, but custom allowed that they might extort a bit of money from the population while the authorities turned a blind eye. Thus, John responded to the soldiers, "Be satisfied with your wages."
In other words, a demonstration of repentance will be an end of grasping greediness, followed by the adoption of contentment.
Generosity, integrity, contentment: signs of a life that has undergone total repentance...proof that faith is more than talk.
No one in those crowds at the Jordan River, who had come for baptism by John, seemed to escape John's demand for them to live a better life.
No easy outs, no short cuts, no excuses.
No matter who came, John could see potential for improvement in their lives.
I wonder if that’s why John drew such large crowds.
It can't have been his appearance, his charm, his polish, or his winning smile.
It must have been something else.
People must have kept coming to John because he asked something significant of them.
He asked them to see themselves and their lives' potential in a new way.
Even Paul, when writing to the Christian converts in Philippi, exhorts them to rejoice in the Lord always and to let their gentleness be evident to others.
He reminds them that the Lord is near.
Of course, Paul is referring to the second coming, not the birth that we’re celebrating at Christmas.
As I’ve been pointing out over the last few weeks, the 2 events are intertwined and we must be mindful that, while we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we must also be preparing for his return, because we don’t know when it will be.
By bringing everything in our lives before God, Paul reminds us that the peace of God, which transcends all our understanding, will guard our hearts and minds – IN JESUS CHRIST.
Jesus is the conduit between us, here on earth, and God.
Do you remember Him saying that “No-one comes to the Father, except through me.”
John says: “the Messiah is definitely on the way” and he’s awed by the majesty and mystery of the coming OF THE Holy One.
He claims that he is not even worthy to untie the thongs of the Messiah's sandals, a task which a common servant would be asked to do.
All John's exhortations to the crowds are also for us and they’re just his way of trying to help us to be ready to step into the presence of greatness, the greatness found in Bethlehem, without the self-consciousness of any misdeeds and wrongdoings clinging to us, in readiness for the Messiah's coming..
“Let the past go” John says, “be rid of it, repent of it, lay it down and take up new lives, worthy of the one whose presence you seek.”
As we prepare to celebrate his birth over 2,000 years ago, we must be living our lives as if he will walk in the door behind us today, so are YOU ready for his return?
Even though I’ve still got work to do in my life, I still look forward to his coming with excitement, anticipation and I certainly pray that you do, as well.
Reflection: "Preparing the Way"
As any experienced military patrol leader will tell you – you really need to send a scout ahead before entering new and unknown territory.
In Exodus 23:20, we read that God sent an angel to prepare the way. The angel went ahead of the people of Israel to guard them along their journey out of Egypt and to bring them to the place that God had prepared for them.
Even Moses sent out scouts from Horeb into the land of the Amorites to determine which route they should take to get to the promised land.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as any surprise when we hear from today’s reading in Malachi, that the Lord tells the people he will send a messenger to prepare the way before the messiah comes.
The Israelites probably thought that it sounded like a good deal when they heard that their messiah was finally coming.
After all, they’d been waiting for a long time for him to come and save them from the oppression that they’d been suffering for so many centuries.
But there’s actually a sting in the words Malachi spoke, because the Israelites hadn’t exactly been on their best behaviour after their return from exile in Babylon.
Despite the good work done by Nehemiah to get them back into their religious ways, they’d fallen back into old habits - such as not keeping the Sabbath, not bringing tithes and offerings to the temple, marrying outside of their faith, etc.
The Lord sent a messenger, Malachi, to get the people to see the errors of their ways.
Instead of the good news that the people were looking for, the words Malachi brought were about a refining and cleansing of their lives, in preparation for the Lord’s coming.
Have you ever seen a smelter – super-heating and melting the metal to such a temperature that the dross (or yucky stuff) floats to the surface and can be skimmed off?
Similarly, when you put dirty clothes into a washing tub with soap and agitate the water, it will free the muck from the material and allow it to float to the surface.
The message from God was that the people needed to examine their practices and get rid of the yucky bits before they could bring their offerings to the Lord at the temple.
We do something like that regularly - in our prayers of confession.
That’s the time when we bring out all the parts of our lives we’d prefer to keep hidden and ask the Lord to refine us and cleanse us of our sins.
The good thing is, that, unlike metal refiners and commercial cleaners, we don’t have to worry about those nasty bits polluting the earth and the sky.
Like a super-efficient extraction system, God removes the impurities by forgiving their sins.
Not unlike Malachi, John the Baptiser lived at a time when the culture around him was being corrupted, corroded and contaminated - as indeed it still is today.
His culture was infected with problems that polluted the cultural waters that he drank and the cultural air that he breathed.
John, who was the cousin of Jesus, came to the people and shouted at them: “Come out to the wilderness; come into the desert; and cleanse yourself of the sin which is deep within you. May your inner cup be washed clean. May your inner heart be purified in order to prepare for the Christ who is to come and live inside of you.
Prepare. May your heart be prepared to receive the Christ.”
Note that John didn’t offer them salvation, or forgiveness for their sins. That was something that only Jesus could offer, but John readied the people to receive Jesus into their hearts.
Luke begins the third chapter of his Gospel with a list of earthly rulers from Rome to the synagogue in Jerusalem, but aside from providing a chronological framework allowing us to work out that the ministry of John was in the years 25–26, this roster also contrasts the limited timeframe of the earthly rulers, compared to Christ’s never-ending impact.
Every earthly ruler wants to be remembered for his contributions to civilization, but Jesus irrevocably modified society by changing humanity’s relationship with God.
Many of the people who came out to hear him, thought that John, himself, was the messiah whom they’d been waiting for, because he preached with such authority from God.
A bit like a herald, proclaiming the arrival of a king, John was preparing the hearts and minds of those who went out into the desert to hear his message.
The quote from Isaiah 40:3-5 epitomises John’s prophetic role and the demands of God upon humankind.
The call to make “paths straight” and “rough ways smooth” describes preparations that would have been made for a royal visit.
Before a king travelled to distant lands, roads and bridges were improved for the journey.
Likewise, the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth required major improvements to be made in lives that were in poor condition.
Thus, the townsfolk wandered into the desert to hear a strange man in a hair shirt, who ate locusts and wild honey, but who had a strong message.
There is something very intriguing about the desert. It is a place of introspection and self-reflection.
Without the distractions and pressures of city life, one becomes more sensitive to the voice of God.
Unfortunately, some people have to journey to a barren land before they hear God’s call.
Only when they are alone and totally dependent upon God will these people stop to listen to his callings.
And with no place to hide, they must confront God’s demand upon their lives.
Lynne and I have made quite a few trips to deserts like the Tanami, north-west of Alice Springs and the Simpson, west of Birdsville.
Many of our friends have commented “Why would you want to go there? There’s nothing to see.”
On the contrary, the scenery changes every 20 or 30 k’s and if the landscape doesn’t overawe you, the variety of animals and insects will amaze you.
God is certainly present in those places and the thing that gets you most is the utter stillness and the vast number of stars that are visible to the naked eye.
What a great God we have and how amazing he seems when we take the time to just sit and absorb his grandeur. That’s what we need to do to listen to God – because he speaks in the stillness, not the roaring wind.
Now I’m not trying to tell you that you’ll only hear or see God in the deserts.
God is everywhere. You just have to look a little harder to find him in the noisy places.
So here we are, in the second week of Advent – preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus - his first coming to earth.
But I believe that it’s also our job to prepare the way for the second coming of Jesus.
As Christians, this is our calling and nothing speaks louder than acts of love and compassion, giving ourselves to others through prayer, our time and gifts of money.
As the time for Christmas gift-giving approaches, how will we ensure that our gifts reflect the promises of God – promises of love, peace & joy for all?
I’d like you to give that some thought in the weeks ahead as we get closer to that special time of Christmas.
Maybe it’s with a thoughtful gift from the Everything in Common catalogue, or maybe it’s by donating some of your time to help those less fortunate than yourselves.
Whatever it is, make sure you remember that God is with you and will multiply your efforts to share his love for his people.
God’s richest blessings on you all at this time of year……..Pastor Rick